What’s been happening to us, Ian?
In short, we find ourselves in a world that’s primed for disagreement and conflict, and we’re not remotely prepared for it. For most of human history, we haven’t had to do much arguing and engaging with people who hold different opinions from us – we’d either just do what we were told or we got into a fight. Until the last few decades, a lot of the big questions were settled by culture or tradition. For example, take the home as a microcosm, whether you were a man, woman or child, you knew how you were expected to relate to each other. These days, all of that is up for grabs – which is great and egalitarian – but the fact everybody has a voice and an opinion inevitably means there are going to be a lot more disagreements.
How does social media play into this?
Social media is a turbocharger. Not only is there a lot more to disagree about, but we can now broadcast this cacophony of opinions instantly across the world. What’s struck me, as I’ve witnessed all of the heated, dumb and futile arguments on various social media platforms, is that we have no idea how to disagree in a way that’s productive – evolution has not equipped us to do this and we’re not trained to argue well. When I started my research, I thought the problem was simply that we were getting into all these toxic fights and we needed to work out how to avoid them. Now I’ve come to a slightly different conclusion: because those social media arguments are so public and unattractive, they’re putting us off disagreement and conflict in all the other spheres of life. A lot of us – myself included – were already pretty conflict averse and certainly didn’t need another reason to avoid it. The more we avoid conflict, the less we get to practise it, so we have less chance to get better at it.
Why is it so bad that we’re ducking confrontations?
Avoiding conflict and disagreement is terrible in lots of different ways. It makes us stupid, it makes us less creative and ultimately it drives us apart. When an issue isn’t out there in the open, it becomes a source of passive aggression, which is like an acid that eats away silently at the bonds that keep us together. That’s true whether we’re talking about a marriage, a business or a democracy. The principles are the same at every level.
It’s not just individuals who are avoiding confrontations at the moment. In modern workplaces there’s a huge emphasis on getting along. There’s an almost nervous stress we put on making sure everyone is cooperative and everyone’s respecting each other. Again, there are good reasons for this, but in too many organisations this is leading to situations where people don’t feel comfortable stating their point of view if it contradicts somebody else in the room openly. There’s plenty of evidence to show that, when that happens, organisations end up making worse decisions because they’re not flushing out all the different insights, points of view and opinions of people in the group.
You believe there are actually three big reasons why conflict is beneficial
Yes. First, as we’ve just partly seen in a workplace situation, conflict improves our collective thinking. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a group of people in an office, a home or an entire society, if they’re not disagreeing, they’re not doing their best thinking. Disagreement forces you to think much harder about your point of view, your proposal or your decision. I mean, I don’t know what I really know about something until I’ve disagreed with someone about it. It’s not until my wife’s told me my idea for where to go on holiday this year is ridiculous that I really think about it and go back to here to say either, no you’re wrong or, actually, yeah you’re right. That’s the basic model for any discussion; it makes you think harder about what you’re saying and raises your collective IQ.
Second, conflict encourages creativity. Clashing perspectives and ideas can come together and form new things. The example I use here is great rock bands. A lot of bands split up before they reach their full potential because they’re not very good at disagreeing with each other. But the really great bands – whether it’s the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or REM – improved each other through argument and conflict. REM were hugely successful and stayed together a long time because they had this ethos of talking through their differences right from the start. Everything was put out on the table before they made any musical or commercial decision.
The third big benefit is a counter-intuitive one: conflict is good for relationships. Think of conflict like physical exercise: it can be uncomfortable, even painful, while you’re doing it, but over time there are immense benefits. I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to psychologists who study relationships, and couples in particular. In that field, the conventional view used to be that argument and conflict were something the happiest couples either avoided or just talked through very calmly. In the last decade or so, however, there’s been much more recognition of the fact that couples need to engage in open and sometimes quite emotional and heated disagreements if they are to survive. Studies now show couples who are willing to get into those types of disagreements are more likely to be satisfied in their relationship and it’s more likely to last longer. Like I said earlier, if you don’t let go of something, it becomes resentment and passive aggression.
If conflict can be good for everyone involved, perhaps it’s unhelpful to think of arguments in terms of winning and losing?
It’s deeply unhelpful! When people approach conflict as that kind of zero-sum game, you tend to get futile arguments and damaging outcomes. Unfortunately we do this all the time because we’re not neurologically equipped for disagreements in which both or all parties win – we’re equipped for flight or fight. Getting away from that model of an argument as a power struggle is essential. There’s a bestseller called How To Be Right by James O’Brien and he followed it up with How Not To Be Wrong. I want to say to him: dude, don’t worry about being right so much! What matters in an argument or debate is that we all move forward and become more right.
Can you give us an example of someone doing conflict properly?
Nelson Mandela is probably the greatest ever example of someone who engaged with his opponents in the sincere belief that people who radically disagree with each other can still be better off by engaging. When he came out of prison and was effectively South Africa’s president elect, he could have used the might of the state to crush the radical right Afrikaner opposition that was mobilising against him, but this would have led to more violence and death. Instead, he chose to enter a dialogue with them and that was typical of him. He had every reason to hate these people who had imprisoned him and killed people he loved. While he was in prison, though, he had got to know his Afrikaner guards, learnt their language and read about their history. In this way, he showed them that he respected them and their culture, while also being open about why he was angry with them. That combination of engaging with respect while being completely open about why you think someone is wrong is increasingly rare at a time when lots of people are questioning whether those they disagree with should have a platform at all.
That idea of establishing a connection is one of your crucial rules for a productive argument, isn’t it?
Absolutely. There are ten rules in my book, one of which is the golden rule: be real. The danger with a book like mine is that it gets distilled into a list of tips and tricks. In an argument, though, you have to engage honestly – the other person will always find you out if you’re just trying to manipulate them.
The first rule is indeed connection. I’ve spoken to expert interrogators of hardened terrorists, hostage negotiators, divorce mediators and diplomats. All of these people who have to deal with tough, hard disagreements for a living have very similar principles. They say the first big mistake most people make is to get to the tough part of the disagreement too quickly. Before you do that, you need to establish a human connection. If you can build a rapport and establish a relationship on the basis of mutual respect, you can lower the defences of even some really bad people. Really good interrogators don’t walk into a room and start throwing the book at someone. They might ask them how they got to this situation and go from there. Remember the golden rule, though: you need to be genuinely interested in that back story for this to work. Good interrogators are invariably very curious people.
Has what you’ve learnt encouraged you to change your own behaviour?
I will have arguments with my wife in front of my kids much more willingly than I used to. We don’t go off to another room to have it out then try to present a united front to the children. We try to show them it’s okay to have straightforward disagreements and still be close to each other. The kids certainly now know how to have it out with me! But that’s a good thing – I’d much rather that than them bottling up frustrations.
Thinking of organisations, a strong company culture can really help here. I was talking to a founder of a medium-sized start-up the other day. He openly disagrees with his co-founder in front of staff, rather than going off to a corner office as if a disagreement is something to be ashamed of. Staff now understand it’s good to voice an opinion that not everyone will agree with.
What do you hope readers might take away from the book?
I hope it will do for other people what it’s done for me, which is to take a lot of the stress and discomfort out of open disagreement. I’ve come to see it as a positive thing and I’m more confident about doing it, which has been hugely beneficial to me at work, at home and on social media. I can see conflict as essential to maintaining good relationships.
Writing the book has been a bit of an adventure. Like all adventures, there’s an element of risk – confrontations won’t always go perfectly and someone might get upset – but there are immense benefits out there. A good conflict can teach you things about the world and about other people that you might never have learnt otherwise.
Finally, Ian, do you think lockdown will change anything about the way we approach conflict?
Thinking of work, Zoom calls are a very good substitute for in-person meetings, but there’s one thing they’re not very good at: encouraging debate and disagreement. When you're not in the same room, you're a lot less aware of what other people are thinking and feeling. You can’t ‘read the room’ and neither can anyone else, which makes us a bit less confident about saying something potentially controversial and pushes us towards consensus decision making. Consensus can be good, but it can also lead us to not explore all of the options. Reed Hastings, the co-founder of Netflix, has said the worst thing about virtual meetings is that you can’t debate ideas. I’m with him on that and I think we need to factor this in as we think about the return to the office. It’s an impact of remote working that won’t show up on a spreadsheet, but over time it could dim the collective intelligence of a company.
Conflicted by Ian Leslie is published by Faber & Faber today. Order it here.
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